Covid-19 Resources | Labor and Staff

9 Tips for Dealing with the Restaurant Labor Shortage

Apr 27, 2021

9 Tips for Dealing with the Restaurant Labor Shortage

So you’ve almost made it through the pandemic, pivoted your business model and managed to stay open in the face of changing regulations. Next comes a not-so-new challenge: a nationwide labor shortage that's making it difficult to staff up for the busy spring and summer seasons.1

How can you overcome the labor shortage and entice people to work for you? We have some tips.

1. Understand worker’s motivations.
There are a lot of reasons for the labor shortage. Here are the main reasons restaurant workers aren’t coming back to work.

Uncertainty. With frequent changes to policies and the possibility of more shutdowns, employees are worried about going back to work if it means potentially losing unemployment only to get laid off again in a few months.

Financial security. For folks in the industry, working two or three jobs to make ends meet is pretty standard. Unemployment insurance is providing many hospitality workers more money to stay unemployed than they would make working. For some, it makes more financial sense to stay home.2

Safety. Even if many restaurant workers are eligible to get COVID vaccines, there’s no guarantee that guests and customers will be vaccinated. A major stressor for many workers is the additional cleaning, sanitizing, and safety protocols that they are now responsible for following, with little to no extra pay. They’re also on the front line of public interaction, increasing their exposure to COVID.3

Moving away from cities. The pandemic has prompted a huge shift away from living in cities. Tom Colicchio’s restaurant group in New York reported that 80-85% of their workforce has moved out of the city in favor of rural or suburban life.4

Moving to other jobs. In an article from the New York Times, a sous chef from Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn decided to pursue computer programming because he didn’t see restaurant work as sustainable long-term. “To me, it was, ‘Do I just sit here on my hands and hope that I have a job in the next two years, three years, five years?’” Mr. Wright said. “The answer was, ‘Absolutely not.’”4

2. Offer bonuses.
Stand out from the crowd of hospitality organizations hiring by offering bonuses to potential employees who come to interview. You can also offer a referral bonus, which may be more successful. It’s a way to incentivize current employees to spread the word and bring in their friends or former colleagues.

3. Increase your benefits.
Many workers are leaving restaurants altogether because other industries offer better benefits. Consider offering enhanced benefits like healthcare, paid vacation time, and a 401k. If these are impossible right now, consider childcare and transportation stipends, free meals, or professional development opportunities.5

4. Have clear COVID protocols and support your staff.
Having clear COVID protocols that make employees feel safe is really important and it’s one of the primary reasons people haven’t returned to work yet. The Aspen Institute’s Food & Society Program has partnered with many other food and science organizations to put together a comprehensive safety guide for foodservice workers and diners. Don’t be afraid to enforce safety measures with guests and support your team when they do.

5. Take care of your current employees.
Many restaurant folks are burned out. Being short-staffed means more work for fewer people. The last thing you need is to lose the dedicated employees you currently have. You might have to make some tough decisions to provide your team with some time off—like closing on Mondays or cutting Sunday brunch. Take a look at your most profitable days and times and consider closing when it would benefit your staff.

6. Consider a new business model.
Some restaurants have been testing alternative business models that encourage more participation and feedback from employees, like open-book management, worker-owned restaurants, and profit-sharing. These models help employees feel that they’re directly involved in the organization’s success and can boost overall retention and new employee recruitment.

7. Increase wages.
After a year of uncertain revenue, raising wages can seem unthinkable. Unfortunately, you’re not only competing with other restaurants now but other industries. Higher wages are already helping some restaurant groups succeed at recruiting cooks, like Finally Restaurant Group in Bozeman, MT.2

8. Encourage better customer treatment of employees.
Customers are anxious to get back into restaurants. Use this opportunity to educate them on the importance of being kind to your staff, as the Aspen Institute’s Diner Code of Conduct suggests. If you have to pay more for labor, now’s a good time to consider increasing your prices. Use this as an opportunity to start a dialogue with your customers.

9. Use more frozen and prepared products.
High-quality frozen and chilled products can eliminate hours of expensive labor from your kitchen every day. Simplot offers a broad portfolio of potato, avocado, vegetables, fruit, and grains that can help you increase consistency and eliminate hazardous knifework and kitchen waste.

This labor shortage demands some new solutions

In 2020, owners had to improvise to meet the new needs of customers in ways that could change what restaurants look like forever. Owners will need to use that same spirit of innovation and creativity to bring workers back to their operations.